Off the beaten path in Italy

Because of the name of my company, I get regular requests for itineraries that are at least partly off the beaten track. The definition of off the beaten path in Italy differs depending on how well you know the country. For some, the beaten track includes just Rome, Florence, and Venice, while for others it would certainly include the Amalfi Coast, the Cinque Terre, Pisa, Milan, Siena, and Lake Como.

There are entire regions of Italy that are off the radar of foreign tourists (yet full of Italians exploring their own country), but in my experience most travelers want balance. They want to see the Colosseum in Rome but then escape the tourists for awhile. They want to see the main sights in Florence and then head into the countryside for some independent exploration. With that in mind, the places I recommend below are both easily accessible from Italy’s main sights, yet have fewer foreign travelers.

 

Off the beaten path near Venice: Bassano del Grappa

After fighting the crowds in Venice, rent a car and explore the Veneto countryside to the north. Start with some Prosecco tasting near Conegliano or visit Palladian villas. Explore gorgeous rural towns like Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. Visit a great Canova museum and extend the road trip north a couple hours into the incredible Dolomites mountains.

Off the beaten track near Venice, Bassano del Grappa

Photo of Bassano del Grappa from Wikimedia Commons

Off the beaten path in Tuscany: the Maremma

The most well known and hence most touristy places in Tuscany include Lucca and Pisa and San Gimignano, the Chianti region, and the Val D’Orcia area south of Siena. You can certainly get off the beaten track in Tuscany within those areas, say by hiring a guide to take you mountain biking through the vineyards and olive groves in Chianti, or by renting a car and visiting small towns like Panzano in Chianti, Monteriggioni, Certaldo, MontepulcianoPienza, or Bagno Vignoni. The Garfagnana region near Lucca is also a wonderful off the beaten track destination, but my pick for this category is Tuscany’s southwest corner, called the Maremma. (To locate it on a map, find the town of Grosseto.) The Maremma has beautiful coastal scenery, vineyards, small medieval towns, and that beautiful Tuscan countryside. Travelers interested in Etruscan history should visit nearby Pitigliano and Sorano. In chillier weather, soak in the natural hot springs of Saturnia (one of the most repinned images on my Italy Pinterest Board).  Go horseback riding or biking or visit the lovely seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia.

Off the beaten path in Tuscany Maremma

Maremma by Giovanni on Flickr

 

Off the beaten path near Rome: the Castelli Romani

It’s easy to get off the beaten path without ever leaving the city of Rome, because there’s so much to see. But when you’ve had enough of the chaos, the nearby Castelli Romani provide a great respite. It’s an area with medieval hill towns, lush green scenery, and volcanic lakes, where wealthy Romans from centuries ago built summer homes with beautiful gardens – now open for visits. The Pope’s summer residence is there, in Castel Gandolfo, and when he’s in town he does a weekly Wednesday audience and Sunday blessing. Visit a winery or two to taste some Frascati wine. For travelers with no car, or who just have time for a day trip from Rome, take the train to Frascati for lunch to get a taste of the scenery, towns, and villas of the Castelli Romani area.

Off the beaten path near Rome, Villa Aldobrandini, Frascati

Photo of the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati from the Library of Congress

 

Off the beaten path near Florence: Pistoia

If you want to get off the beaten path in Italy and your itinerary includes Florence, drive or take the train northwest to visit the very pretty town of Pistoia. Explore this lovely town, go for a hike, take a historic train, or go to the city’s Palio in July called the Giostra dell’Orso.

Off the beaten track near Florence

 

Off the beaten path near the Amalfi Coast: Paestum

In high season, the iconic towns of the Amalfi Coast are packed with travelers, so it’s tough to avoid the crowds in Sorrento, Positano, Ravello, and Capri. You may not want to skip these towns altogether, so consider visiting them from a base in one of the other coastal towns such as Praiano, Amalfi, Atrani, or Cetara, or stay on the island of Ischia rather than Capri. Then leave the majority of tourists behind, and just an hour or so south along the coast are the amazingly well-preserved Greek temples at Paestum. It’s not a huge site that requires as much time as, say, Pompeii, so visit a mozzarella farm or relax on gorgeous sandy beaches for a few days after your visit.

Off the beaten track near the Amalfi Coast, Paestum

Paestum from Wikimedia Commons

 

Off the beaten path near Lake Como: Lake Maggiore

Before I started my travel business, I didn’t realize that Lake Como was more internationally famous than its next-door neighbor, Lake Maggiore, because my Italian friends visit them equally. But I get regular requests from clients about Lake Como and very few about Lake Maggiore (though I’ve suggested it to many people who want to get off the beaten path and consequently include it itineraries on a regular basis). When people ask about Lake Como, it’s because they’ve heard about pretty lakeside towns with promenades, villas with gardens, picturesque hikes, and mountain and lake scenery They want to relax while enjoying excellent food or a glass of wine with a view. All of those things can be done on Lake Maggiore, with fewer tourists. Not only that, the two lakes are close to each other, so it’s easy to base yourself on one and visit both. Or, base yourself on Lake Lugano, in between the two lakes, and visit all three.

Off the beaten path near Lake Como, Lake Maggiore Italy

Isola Pescatore Photo by Sanjay Jhawar

Off the beaten path near the Cinque Terre: Santa Margherita Ligure

Under an hour up the coast from the iconic Cinque Terre villages is another pretty set of towns on the Portofino peninsula: Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino, Rapallo, and Camogli are wonderful fishing villages with colorful houses, excellent food, picturesque scenery, and many fewer tourists compared to the Cinque Terre (maybe with the exception of Portofino). Boats, hiking trails, trains, and of course roads (but parking is not fun) connect the towns, and luxury travelers will find better hotel options in this area compared to the Cinque Terre. It’s not far down the coast to visit the iconic five villages, so visit for a day trip, but then come home at the end of the day to a place with fewer foreign tourists.

Off the beaten track near the Cinque Terre, Santa Margherita Ligure Italy

Photo of Santa Margherita Ligure from Wikimedia Commons

 

Off the beaten path near Bologna: Brisighella

I’m not sure that Bologna is considered to be on the beaten path, but I send enough travelers to that area for cheese tours (Parma), balsamic vinegar tours (Modena), Ferrari test drives, and other foodie experiences, that I seem to book quite a few hotel nights in Bologna. Bologna is a university town and it doesn’t have nearly as many North American travelers as the other places on this list. However, for anyone who wants to get even further off the beaten path, there is a gorgeous little town not far from Bologna called Brisighella, a perfect medieval Italian hilltown. I spent a summer there as a nanny one year, and enjoyed hikes up to the rocca, views over the countryside, the small streets and the amazing food. While I was there, the town’s yearly summer Medieval festival was on and we all dressed up like witches and danced in the streets.

Off the beaten path near Bologna, Brisighella

Photo of Brisighella from istockphoto.com

Off the beaten path in Sicily: the Baroque South

A basic Sicily itinerary usually includes Taormina, the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento, Siracusa, and maybe Palermo. Taormina is jam-packed with tourists in high season, especially when the cruise ships come in, but it’s probably worth visiting. But tack on another 3 or so days to your Sicily itinerary and head south from Siracusa to visit the towns of Ragusa, Scicli, Modica, and the old town of Ragusa Ibla [update: and Noto, of course!] in the area known as the Baroque south. It’s possible, but not easy, to get around Sicily by public transport so I’d recommend renting a car (and a GPS!). Explore the beautiful Sicilian countryside or spend a few days on the coast or visit a winery for a tour (don’t just show up, though). If you’re visiting both Siracusa and the Agrigento, the Baroque South is sort of on the way.

Off the beaten path in Sicily, Ragusa Ibla Italy

Photo of Ragusa Ibla by Tango, from Wikimedia Commons


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9 Comments

  1. Jennifer Vieley
    October 24, 2014

    Great article! I agree 100% that some of the best experiences are those in places where you’ll find the path less travelled. I live in Palestrina, which is located close to Rome, between Tivoli and the Castelli Romani, in an area called the Monti Prenestini which are the lower foothills of the Apennine Mountains. It’s a really beautiful place and the entire town of Palestrina was built on top of an enormous pagan temple dedicated to the goddess of fortune (today it’s an archeological museum housing the famous mosaic of the Nile River, etc). Also, for classic and sacred music lovers, Palestrina is the home of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, famous composer of polyphonic music for the Sistine Chapel. Today you can visit his home which is a small museum as well as the amazing historical archives containing vast amounts of music and historical material on music. The best part about towns in this area is that there are no tourist traps and restaurants don’t raise the bill for foreign tourists. We are well-connected by train and by highway and there are plenty of places to stay in the area. There are also many local associations run by new-generation Italians who offer multi-language guides for archeo-trekking, site-seeing, nature walks, photography walks, biking, food & wine tasting. Age-old traditions, artisan crafts and delicious recipes await those interested in getting to know a corner of Italy that has so much to offer!

    Reply
    • Madeline
      October 24, 2014

      Dear Jennifer, thanks for your comment and for all the detailed information about Palestrina. It sounds wonderful!

      Reply
  2. Desiree'
    October 25, 2014

    Great tips! I love exploring the unexplored too 🙂

    http://theanti-tourist.blogspot.com/

    Reply
  3. Mike Knoll
    October 30, 2014

    Thanks Madeline for the tips on the Baroque hill towns of Southeastern Sicily. I think you omitted one, Noto. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was certainly beautiful and interesting. A sad side note, I was amazed at the rude treatment I got at the tourist office in Noto. The tourist office folks in Ragusa and Modica couldn’t have been nicer. We spent a couple of weeks based in an apartment in Pozzallo and made day trips to all of these places. We also did a day trip by ferry from Pozzollo to Malta. Had I known Malta was so interesting, I would have spent a few days there and flown back to Milano from Malta instead of Catania. We visited in May and the weather was great; not quite swimming weather, but sunny and mild with no crowds to wade through. We rented a car and bounced around a bit without a GPS.
    Renting apartments instead of staying at hotels has been a Godsend for us. I even got a part time gig translating apartment promos from our landlord, Saro La Pira.

    Reply
    • Madeline
      October 30, 2014

      Mike, you’re right, I forgot about Noto, thanks for the reminder! I’ll update the post. Sounds like you had a great trip, thanks for the tips re the Noto tourist office and Malta.

      Reply
  4. Saana
    November 15, 2014

    I love reading about alternative travel destinations! I absolutely agree with what you said about Amalfi coast region – I’ve been to the little town of Amalfi twice and I love it, although next time I’m going to have to try one of the other small ones. I’ve been to Capri but Ischia is definitely next on my list – I’m quite certain I will enjoy it even more than Capri!

    I just started my own blog about my travels in Italy and around the world, you can check it out here if you like: http://alwaysabroad.co

    Reply
  5. Tips for multi generational travel in Italy - Italy Beyond The Obvious
    December 5, 2014

    […] is a bucket list destination for many travelers. Some of your family members may want to get off the beaten track in Italy while others may want to see the country’s main sights or spend a few days at the beach. […]

    Reply
  6. Kara
    April 1, 2015

    Oh how I miss visiting Italy. I took a food tour with my family with this company: foodtoursofnaples.com. So much fun, and the food was incredible. So much authentic pizza, fish, pasta, and really drool-worthy desserts… Yum

    Reply
  7. GregF
    March 20, 2017

    Italy still has a lot to offer for who wants to discover or live a real local experience. Getting travelers to discover the un-touristy Italy is what we are trying to promote. We have a project in southern Latium to create a place where travelers can experience at their own pace what it is to live as an Italian while having the possibility to discover less advertised historic or naturalistic places and taste genuine food.
    Alternative holidays is really the way to make the most of our holidays.

    http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/give-life-back-to-an-ancient-italian-village-italy#/

    Reply

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